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Book Review: Miller Alice 1991 Banished Knowledge

VIRAGO PRESS 1991. London. IR£6.40

Does Alice Muller say anything new about Child Abuse?

The media and the profession have tended to say no. I am not so sure. Her work 
requires careful consideration in the context of one’s own beliefs.

Miller’s theory is that the tragedy of Child Abuse, and its frequency in our and
 other societies lies embedded in our subconscious. Unable to face the pain of 
knowing that as a child we too were abused and humiliated, we are compelled to revisit on our own children, often with pride, the traumatic methods of childrearing 
that were inflicted on ourselves. This may take the extreme form of severe physical
 or sexual abuse, or the more subtle and for me very disturbing, killing of the soul,
 the slow and rigorous humiliation and deadening of the child’s ability to feel and
 express feelings. This is done through perfectly acceptable and often officially 
condoned methods of control, notably the withdrawal of love as punishment.

Alice Miller gives vivid examples of these methods, such as the traditional 
celebrations of St Nicholas Day in Germany, where she observes, the public 
humiliation of children in a ritual approved of and watched by doting parents.

In another instance, a client describes his own “just and fair” mother’s punishment
 which consisted of tying him to a chair by a thread, a thread he never broke, how 
powerful a symbol of emotional power and control.

Alice Miller goes on to describe the defense of these methods of child rearing by
 the very people who endured them. They defend them as the price they pay to
 survive. Blocking out painful feelings is the child’s only survival mechanism. The
 denial of one’s own suffering and the desire to keep the image of the good, idealised 
parent intact is perpetuated into adulthood and revisited on the next generation of 
children. In order to retain our image of the “good” parent, we build up reasons
 and excuses for their behaviour however unacceptable. Religion and Society 
encourage this view. Miller quotes her own experience as an abused child.

For a long time, this taboo against condemning parents for their actions 
towards children prevented me from clearly seeing and formulating the parent’s 
guilt. But above all, I was unable to question the actions of my own parents,
 because my life long fear of the feeling that re-experiencing my former situation
 might arouse my sense of dependence on parents who had no inkling of either their
 child’s needs or their own responsibilities.”

Miller feels that in order to break this vicious circle, each one of us needs to re-
examine our attitude towards children and their rights. She describes her own
 journey and the failure of psychoanalysis to uncover her feelings. It was eventually
 through Konrad Stettbacher’s theory that she was able to re-experience the feelings
of the abused child within.

Miller left the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1988, feeling 
passionately that the very practice of psychoanalysis perpetuates the repression of
 childhood trauma. She goes on to describe how this is done and why. Firstly, the
 dogma denies the reality of abuse especially in the Freudian Model, where the client
 is further confused when his/her reality of abuse is denied and interpreted as 

Secondly, psychoanalysts are themselves not in touch with their own child
 within. Indeed they fear it. For this reason they are quite unable to help clients to
 re-experience their own repressed feelings. Instead, psychoanalysts intellectualise the 
issue and frequently insist on exonerating the parent, thereby keeping their own
 “idealised” parent intact.

Miller’s stance is thought provoking, controversial and by her own admission 
hotly contested by the media and the profession.

She does offer some positives in the bleak scenario. Above all she stresses the 
value of an “enlightened witness” who can identify with the child’s suffering and
 make him realise he is loveable and stand up for the child, validating his feelings.

For the adult Alice Miller advocates Konrad Stettbacher’s therapy (1) which she
 describes only briefly in this book.

Through her own experience, she knows that “to encounter one’s own history
 not only puts an end to the blindness hitherto displayed towards the child within
 oneself but also reduces the blockage of thoughts and feelings “.

This is a thought provoking and controversial book worth reading and discussing
 with colleagues.

(1) STETTBACHER, J. KONRAD. If Suffering Is To Have A Meaning. New York 
Dutton 1991.

Renate Thome

The Irish Association of Humanistic
& Integrative Psychotherapy (IAHIP) CLG.

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